Next month (March 2014) Dig Greater Manchester starts its third year with a two week excavation in Cheetham Park, Stalybridge. For me this is a welcome return to a landscape I know well courtesy of the Tameside Archaeological Survey. One of the features of archaeology is that sometimes projects run for several years, a pleasant contrast to the treadmill of developer-funded work, and a treat for the archaeologists involved. I have been fortunate to be involved in several such projects, but the longest and most significant for me was the Tameside Archaeological Survey.
Begun in 1990, and funded by Tameside MBC, the survey ran for 22 years with three main aims: primary research, community engagement, and dissemination. Tameside as a local authority was only created in 1974 and this project was seen by the council as one way in which the new borough’s identity could be promoted through the exploration of its river valley, mossland and upland landscapes. Thus, a major theme of the research was the origin and development of the borough’s nine industrial towns (Ashton, Denton, Droylsden, Dukinfield, Hollingworth, Hyde, Mosley, Mottram and Stalybridge), most of which are strung along the banks of the River Tame. Indeed, as the survey progressed it became clear that this landscape contained a huge amount of post-medieval and industrial archaeology, much of it of regional or national significance.
I had the privilege to run the project for its 22 years, and to oversee the results. These were substantial: 24 research excavations, over 110 detailed building surveys; archaeological open days, workshops and field days for more than 35 primary schools in the borough, attended by more than 3000 pupils and over 5000 adults; a major public exhibition (Setantii – Tales of Tameside) on display for 10 years receiving more than 300,000 visitors; two publication series amounting to 18 academic and popular monographs (in total over 625,000 words); a range of journal articles; and five national awards. Academically, the fieldwork has had a major impact on the practice and development of Industrial Archaeology, through the excavation of one of the earliest Newcomen steam engine sites in the world (Fairbottom Bobs); pioneering studies on the canal warehouses and felt hatting industry remains in the borough; and the development of the Manchester Methodology. The latter is a landscape research technique developed by the project to cut through and sort the overwhelming mass of archaeological data for the period. This was done through organising the sites into monument types, identifying the earliest documented examples, linking these to the local social hierarchy, and then charting the spread and density of new structures across the landscape and by social group during the period 1600-1900. The approach has been used elsewhere in the UK and in the Irish Republic.
Yet the most satisfying aspect of the survey, from my point of view, has been the enthusiasm of the local volunteers. This enthusiasm led to the founding of two new local groups, the Friends of Gorse Hall and the Tameside Archaeology Society (TAS). Dig Greater Manchester is linking with TAS to undertake the work in Cheetham Park in March, and the success of such groups is a major legacy of the survey. It is TAS, Friends of Gorse Hall and others such as the Tameside Local History Forum, who are taking the information from the Tameside Archaeological Survey and exploring their own past with their own research questions.